ATOP part 1: in which Paul meets Fifi

I wanted to do something unique for my birthday this year. I have enough things already, and I didn’t really fancy buying myself anything in particular. Instead, I thought I’d rather have some kind of unique experience.

Several months ago, a friend of mine at Microsoft mentioned ATOP, the Airline Training Orientation Program. It’s run by Wayne Phillips, a pilot and FAA inspector from Michigan, and its mission is to give pilots of all experience levels exposure to airline training. The upshot: pay a fee, and you get to attend a 12-hour ground school, then fly a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 simulator for an hour… an hour which you can log as simulator time in your pilot’s logbook.

When Rich first told me about the program, I didn’t know when I’d be in Pensacola so I couldn’t commit to a date. However, right before I left Mountain View I got an email from ATOP announcing their dates for the next six months– and one of them was right after my birthday. Problem solved.

I quickly signed up for the open date, a session training on the A320 (nicknamed “Fifi” by its pilots), booked a flight on Delta PNS-ATL-MCO (using miles, of course), and started reading up on the A320. The ATOP folks supply attendees with about 300 pages of A320 or B737 documentation, mostly garnered from line pilots at Delta, JetBlue, American, and Continental. I started reading and quickly learned more than I thought possible about the A320 systems, but certainly less than I’d actually need to fly the darn thing.

Logbook and papers in hand, I flew from PNS to ATL, had a quick snack at Popeye’s in Terminal B (where the same bald-headed manager has ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove for at least the last 10 years), and continued on to MCO. My flight was uneventful, but sadly I wasn’t on an A320; instead I had two fairly decrepit old DC-9s.

After laying up at a nearby hotel (the Country Inn and Suites; not too bad, especially at the ATOP discount rate), I met the other attendees in the lobby bright and early Saturday morning. There were six other folks in the class: Steve’s retired and on his fourth ATOP class. Thanos is a Greek dentist and pilot from Florida. Adam is a private pilot who works for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. John and Johnny are aviation students from Jackson University, and Dexter’s a student as well. I wasn’t the oldest (that would be Steve, who’s just about to turn 70), but I was the second-oldest.

After a quick bus ride we arrived at JetBlue University, the training facility where JetBlue trains all of its pilots, flight attendants, and gate agents. The facility itself is new, large, and fancy. There’s a swimming pool for practicing with life rafts, for example, and a trainer for flight attendants to practice evacuations using the emergency slides.

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the emergency egress trainer, which moves side to side and back and forth– in two axes

There are two types of training devices that you can use for flight training. One is (surprise) known as a flight training device. It’s a replica of the cockpit, with instruments and controls that work like the real thing, but without the visual aids that a full simulator provides. The FTD isn’t much to look at– sort of like a disembodied airplane cockpit. There’s a control console (not visible below) that the instructor can use to set up various conditions… say, an engine fire or hydraulic failure.

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one of JetBlue’s A320 FTDs. Displays and controls work as they do in the real airplane, with a few minor exceptions (e.g. you can’t turn on the windshield wipers)

We also toured the simulator hall. Each of JetBlue’s simulators is a full flight simulator at level D according to the FAA’s definition: full-motion, wide field of view, with sound. The sims themselves are mighty beasts; I doubt you could fit one in my apartment. Each has a name (the one below is “Varsity Blue,” but there are others, like “Welcome to the School of Blue”) and an FAA registration number– when you log simulator time in one of these, you log the sim’s registration number just like you would log time in an actual aircraft.

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One of JetBlue’s full-motion, Level D flight simulators for the A320

You enter the sim through the bridge in the lower part of the picture, then they pull it up and lock the door. This isn’t so the pilots inside can’t escape; it’s so the simulator can move freely, but escape-proofing is a nice side benefit. Inside, the conventional cockpit layout is forward, and there are comfy chairs for an observer and the simulator controller. You can’t really tell from this picture, but the visual presentation is stunning– it’s exactly what you’d see from inside a real aircraft during all phases of flight. In this picture, the sim is parked at a gate in Orlando, so most of what you see is concrete and terminal building.

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a view from inside the simulator; because of the narrow field of view of my camera you can’t see the side windows but there’s stuff happening there too

Note that all the aircraft screens are blank, just like they would be if you were taking the first flight of the day in an aircraft that was parked overnight. Good thing that we learned how to start a cold aircraft! Phil mentioned that most Airbus operators leave the aircraft powered overnight; with 150+ computers in the aircraft, the chances of something getting stuck or failing to boot properly from a cold shutdown are high enough that leaving some systems powered up makes more sense.

After the tour, we made our way to the classroom, which is festooned with posters of the A320’s flight controls, overhead console, and center pedestal. Each of us got a set of these for reference, and then Wayne started in on ground school. We went over each system in some detail. For example, I can now tell you how the packs (really PACKs, or pneumatic air cycle kits) work and how to control them. The thing that surprised me the most about the training is how automated the A320 really is, and how many mundane tasks it automates away in normal operation. If you do something out of sequence, or fail to set something up properly,  the aircraft will tell you. Wayne described the A320 as a “lights-out” aircraft: during normal operation, almost none of the buttons on the center pedestal or overhead console will be lit. We covered all of the major systems: electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, engine, and so on, learning how each works, how to control it, and what to do when things go wrong.

For lunch, we ordered in pizza, and what was supposed to be a working lunch turned into a fascinating career discussion. Wayne and Phil both believe that the job market for pilots will steadily improve over the next ten or so years because of the demographics of the current pilot base. Phil even mentioned that JetBlue had just hired a 59-year-old pilot, which certainly gave me hope that a career as a professional pilot isn’t off the table for me just yet.

After lunch we had more systems training, plus a bonus. Just because I could, I also signed up for the high-altitude endorsement. The FAA requires (in FAR 61.31.(g)) that you receive special training in high-altitude operations before operating a pressurized aircraft that can climb above FL250 (that’s 25,000 feet for those of you following along at home). This training consists of some ground school covering high-altitude physiology, including hypoxia, some time in a cockpit procedures trainer (CPT), colloquially known as a “wooden Indian”, and some time practicing emergency descents in the FTD. The CPT is basically a paper cockpit mockup– you can learn where things are and “chair-fly” your way through learning procedures. We each took a turn going through the profile we’ll fly in the simulator on Sunday: a takeoff from Orlando International, a series of maneuvers around the traffic pattern, a touch-and-go-landing, another lap around the pattern, and another landing.

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from left to right: John, Phil, and Johnny in the CPT. Phil took the time to explain the control flows to us until we had them all down pat.

After we finished in the CPT, it was on to the FTD for emergency descents. Wayne set us up at FL350, then simulated an explosive decompression, at which point the fun started. We used the standard JetBlue emergency descent checklist, which only has 10 steps on it. First you don your oxygen mask, then you determine a new, lower altitude, tell the airplane to go there (optionally hitting the “expedite” button), call air traffic control, and make sure not to fly into any surrounding terrain. Once you set the commanded altitude, Fifi automatically deploys speed brakes, changes engine thrust, and adjusts the aircraft pitch and trim to maintain the correct rate of descent. It’s spooky to see the trim wheels move on their own.

Interestingly (to me, anyway), the engine thrust is controlled by a system known as autothrust, not auto-throttles. The thrust levers don’t move at all, but the autothrust system will change the engine power output as needed to maintain the correct speed during climb, cruise, and descent. Set the speed you want and off you go. As with other aspects of the A320, the flight control laws will try to keep you from doing anything stupid. For example, the FAA prohibits speeds over 250 knots under 10,000 feet, so the autothrust system won’t exceed that. During an emergency descent, it will automatically throttle the engines back to idle, and so on.

By the time we finished our runs through the FTD, it was about 7:15– so we’d been on the grounds training for nearly 12 hours. The JetBlue shuttle bus took us back to the hotel, I walked over to Friday’s for dinner, and hit the bed, tired as can be.

Tomorrow (or, really, later today) is the big adventure: two hours flying Fifi. (I originally signed up for one hour but bought a second hour after one of the registrants had to cancel due to illness– after all, it’s a birthday present.) More to come.. in the meantime, read lots more about Fifi from Captain Dave or Karlene.


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One response to “ATOP part 1: in which Paul meets Fifi

  1. Pingback: Heading to see Fifi! | Paul's Down-Home Page

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